Jim O’Brien is passionate about teaching high school students high-level chemistry. He’s been doing so as long as he’s been at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and involved with the Students and Teachers as Research Scientists program – 21 years.
“It’s a great program for UMSL,” said O’Brien, professor of chemistry at UMSL, who was born and raised in North Queensland, Australia. “STARS graduates can advertise the fact that they’ve had this experience here to other students. We were one of the first university’s in the area to have this kind of program. I think it represents a true need for students who want to get this special instruction.”
STARS enables around 60 talented students from St. Louis-area high schools to participate in an intensive six-week research opportunity that oftentimes leads to credit on a published paper in an established academic journal. In fact, all of O’Brien’s STARS students have published in the Journal of Molecular Spectroscopy. And they also are co-authors on presentations O’Brien gives on the research.
“I like working with STARS students,” he said. “This program gives them an extra boost and really is a springboard for their academic careers. We have students go on to do phenomenal work in science and medicine. It’s very satisfying.”
Leah, O’Brien’s wife, is a professor of chemistry at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. She also teaches STARS students.
“We work with pairs of students,” Jim O’Brien said. “It’s a nice way for us to work together.”
His research deals with fundamental and applied high-resolution laser spectroscopy and gas phase analytical chemistry at ultra-high sensitivity. That means he studies gases and plasmas, such as recording spectra of methane so that planetary astronomers can determine methane profiles on the outer planets. He also records spectra of diatomic radicals such as gas phase platinum fluoride (PtF) and gold oxide (AuO) that previously had never been observed.
He teaches both undergraduate and graduate students in instrumental analysis, physical chemistry, quantum chemistry and senior seminar courses.
Outside of science, he’s an avid fan of the UMSL Tritons – especially volleyball, a sport he used to play and referee. He’s often found at UMSL home games.
“I think sports at UMSL are important for this campus,” he said. “They represent an additional dimension.”
When not teaching or cheering on the Tritons, O’Brien bicyles, listens to National Public Radio or talks with his two daughters about bioengineering and environmental engineering – their chosen college majors.